Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite was something of a “SeaWorld mom.” She’d taken her kids to the San Diego location of the popular theme park corporation, “planted us firmly in the Shamu splash zone and we all just ate it up.”
Then she read of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau’s grisly death by orca in February of 2010. She “just couldn’t come to terms with it. I could not understand how a highly intelligent, beloved mammal could make that decision. I was confounded. Was he playing? Did she drown accidentally? The more I read, the more questions I had.
“And the more questions I had, the more I realized that if I have them, other people have them too.”
Cowperthwaite took her questions to eight former SeaWorld trainers, and their answers, on camera, turned into “Blackfish,” an acclaimed new documentary about killer whales, SeaWorld and the “incidents” that have occurred at such parks all over the world.
Dawn’s death was my portal into the whole subject of whether these animals should be kept like this,” Cowperthwaite says. “This is a place that we all thought was a happy place. It’s on every parents’ bucket list — take the kids to see Shamu. We all grew up calling them ‘Shamus.’ Shamu is embedded into the American experience.
“I wanted to come at it from my point of view, a little uncomfortable watching these trainers fly off the nose of these great whales. Yes, every face in that stadium was smiling, but I wondered how something that seemed to make everyone so happy could be so utterly wrong.”
John Hargrove is one of the trainers she interviewed, a true “expert witness” to killer whale interactions and a veteran of SeaWorld of Texas, SeaWorld of California and Marineland in the South of France. He says that as thorough as the training he received was, there are things going on with the whales that stress them and set the stage for attacks like the one that killed Brancheau.
You work with them, you’re aware of their aggression,” Hargrove says.”You feel what they’re capable of. As horrific as Dawn’s death was, and she was a friend of mine, I wasn’t shocked. We knew Tillikum (Brancheau’s killer) was capable of, really, what any killer whale is capable of. You know. Once a trainer goes through a water-work aggression with a whale, or see it, that gives you a greater appreciation for what could go wrong when they get angry.”
Hargrove and the others spoke out because “the needs of the whales are not being met. The size of the facilities, the age of the facilities, the fact that SeaWorld is making a fortune and not putting that money back into taking better care of the whales,” he says. “They renovate the barbecue restaurant and put in new roller coasters. And the whales, which are responsible for SeaWorld’s success, were not seeing any of the benefit of that.”
Cowperthwaite, who had worked on an “Animal Nightmares” TV series early on, but in recent years has filmed Iraq War combat documentaries and a documentary about urban lacrosse, came to the same conclusion.
“The people who made the film — the former trainers and me — think we need to vote with our dollars until SeaWorld puts an end to the captive breeding,” she says. “They need to stop perpetuating killer whales in captivity and we need to stop going to their parks until they do that.”
Reviews of the film have endorsed that message, with Variety agreeing that SeaWorld comes off as “a deep-pocketed institution that, for all its claims of humane and professional treatment, tolerates practices that are fundamentally at odds with the animals’ well-being.”
The company has only responded to the film in with a statement accusing the film of repeating “the same unfounded allegations made many times over the last several years by animal-rights activists.” “The company is dedicated in every respect to the safety of our staff and the welfare of animals.”
But it’s responses like that which drove Cowperthwaite during the making of “Blackfish.”
“I’m not an animal activist. I’m a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld…I hope the film starts a conversation. You come out of it armed with the truth, a truth that they try to cover up.
“I think we’ve made an accurate, factual document that makes a pretty good case for taking another look at how these animals are treated, whether they should be penned up like this and what can be done about it in the future.”
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